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In this post, Dr Alessandro Arduino, affiliate lecturer at the Lau China Institute, King’s College London, and a member of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA) advisory group, explores the topic of the resurgence of mercenaries in the modern security landscape.

By reflecting on history, Dr Arduino exposes the historical cycle of mercenaries, and how their presence continues to cast a long and troubling shadow on the international security landscape.


On June 24, 2023, an escalating clash between the Russian military high command and the Wagner Group mercenaries reached a critical point. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the Wagner Group, crossed the Rubicon creating serious implications for Moscow’s ability to contain the Ukrainian counteroffensive. While openly accusing the Russian army’s commanders of cowardice, Prigozhin moved his mercenary units from Ukraine to the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, priming them to advance toward Moscow. This unexpected turn of events caught the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, off guard.

In response to these developments, Vladimir Putin addressed the nation and strongly condemned what he viewed as a blatant betrayal, summoning the security forces to suppress the armed insurrection. While the Biden administration had been deliberating for months on whether to label the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization, and the UK had only recently initiated the process, Putin took the initiative characterizing the armed insurrection as a terrorist threat and implemented strict counterterrorism laws in major Russian cities.

As the leader of the Wagner Group abruptly changed course and sought refuge in Belarus under President Aleksander Lukashenko’s protection, the FSB, a Russian security agency, declared that all charges of armed mutiny against the Wagner Group had been dropped. Just two months following the incident, Mr. Prigozhin met a tragic fate, perishing in the explosion of his private jet enroute to St. Petersburg. This time, the world met the news without surprise.

Promoting Enduring Chaos

Reflecting on history, the treacherous acts of mercenaries turning on the kings who hired them have unfolded repeatedly. This phenomenon has been a recurrent theme. Therefore, the astonishment that rippled through Russia when Putin’s loyal enforcer turned against him serves as a stark reminder of an unsettling truth: Mercenaries have made a resurgence and are a permanent fixture on the contemporary security landscape.

The notion of mercenaries isn’t a recent phenomenon; it’s deeply rooted in the earliest chapters of recorded history. Mercenaries, known by various names such as freelance warriors, soldiers of fortune, or hired guns, are individuals, often soldiers, who engage in armed conflicts primarily driven by personal gain.

More recently, the ever-evolving world of mercenary-related activities is blurred by the rise of the private military and security sectors, and it has also the cyberspace. In this respect, the ongoing debate about the legal distinctions between mercenaries and private military and security companies (PMCs) is still heated. Private Military Companies (PMCs) were typically seen as augmenting regular armies, offering training, weapon maintenance, and even kinetic action, while private security companies (PSCs) were tasked with passive roles, safeguarding infrastructure and people against criminal or terrorist threats.

Nonetheless, the terrain has shifted once more, giving rise to a fresh breed of mercenaries. These include quasi-PMCs acting as de facto state proxies and PSCs grounded in non-market economies, where the notion of ‘’private’’ differs notably from the one used in the West. This transformative shift is redrawing the very boundaries of the contemporary security architecture, and the Wagner Group stands as a striking exemplar of this evolving paradigm.

When we examine the historical progression of “men of war” from Europe to Asia, we observe a resurgence of mercenaries and prolonged conflicts. This trend has persisted since the establishment of the Westphalian order and the emergence of modern national armies. The perception of free lances or condottieri, as highlighted by figures like Machiavelli, has increasingly taken on a negative connotation. A soldier of fortune, it is argued, does not view victory or defeat with the same lens as conventional warriors, as both outcomes signal the end of their livelihood. Even in today’s contemporary warfare landscape, marked by Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) and cyber warfare, mercenaries face a peculiar paradox: victory leads to joblessness, while defeat results in potential death or imprisonment.

A common criticism that retains relevance in future conflicts is that mercenaries contribute to a persistent state of insecurity. They are seen as incapable of bolstering the state’s monopoly on the use of force and instead perpetuate uncertainty for personal gain. Examples like the coup in Sierra Leone orchestrated by entities like Sandline or Wagner’s support for military juntas in places like Mali, underscore this argument.

Today’s mercenaries represent a modern resurgence of a historical trend rooted in ancient times.

The prevailing belief that full-scale wars between sovereign nation-states had become relics of a bygone era in the 21st century has been widely held. However, this perception was shattered by events like the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the 44-day conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, violent confrontations between nation-states are increasingly orchestrated through proxy forces, often involving non-state actors.

Throughout the annals of history, mercenary groups have not only bolstered the armies of kings and emperors but also delivered unique combat prowess that necessitates specialized training. The tradition of hiring soldiers for defence or armed aggression dates back to ancient times. A vivid illustration is found in Xenophon’s account of the Anabasis in 401 BCE. It recounts how Cyrus the Younger employed a substantial Greek mercenary force, ultimately enabling him to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II and ascend to the throne of Persia.

In the heyday of the Roman Empire, mercenaries swiftly filled the ranks, especially along the empire’s frontiers, known as the limes. Yet what began as a short-term solution morphed into a protracted challenge, as entire barbarian tribes were contracted as autonomous militia, known as foederati.

Shifting from the Western to the Eastern reaches, mercenaries are assuming specialized roles as assault troops during the Byzantine Empire. Notably, a significant portion of the imperial guard, the Varangian Guard, was comprised of Vikings.  In the West, during the Middle Ages, despite the historical association of mercenaries with the Black Plague, their proliferation continued unabated. By the time of the Italian Renaissance, the business of warfare reached its codification with the condottieri who offered their armed bands skilled services to the highest bidder. Still in Europe, during the Thirty Years War, the role of mercenaries reached its zenith also thanks to the demand for firearms specialists.

During the same historical period in the Japanese Meiji era, skilled mercenaries such as the Saika Ikki played a significant role in turning battles into victories, offering their harquebuses to the highest bidder.

At the time of the American Revolution, German mercenaries hailing from Hesse-Kassel could be found fighting on both sides of the conflict. Over time, the term “Hessians” came to serve as a general label for mercenaries from various other German principalities.

From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire’s military employed various categories of mercenaries, often distinguished by their geographical origin or specific skills, ranging from artillery to engineering. Mercenaries recruited within the Ottoman Empire often shared tribal ties, like the Azabs, who came from the same villages and were typically employed as expendable skirmishers in the initial wave of attacks. In the turbulent era of Chinese warlords spanning from 1911 to 1930, a period marked by the void created following the collapse of the Qing imperial dynasty, local potentates rose to prominence, wielding authority over their domains through the might of their private armies.

Following World War II, during the tumultuous period of African postcolonial conflicts, the resurgence of mercenaries became particularly pronounced. The South African firm Executive Outcome emerged as a prime example, setting the standard for highly skilled mercenaries who capitalized on the turmoil in Angola and Sierra Leone. Across the African continent, this era witnessed the emergence of nimble yet effective mercenary groups employing advanced weaponry and tactics, bolstering local governments’ efforts to maintain their grip on power.

More recently, the United States’ increasingly heavy reliance on contractors since the Yugoslavian conflict provides a case in point. It underscored the idea that while the state could cede some of its control over the use of force, it still remained the primary source of income for these entities.

Recognizing these recurring historical cycles is crucial in comprehending the freelance in today’s context. It’s equally important to acknowledge that mercenaries are not the root cause of conflicts; they are but a symptom.

Mercenaries are here to stay

Thus, today, just as millennia ago, mercenaries remain an unpopular but widely utilized tool employed by many. In this respect, the post–Cold War security vacuum is characterised by increasing demand for mercenaries and private military services by authoritarian countries is shaping the market for force away from the corporate path that the U.S. has traced over the last two decades.

With the global security architecture influx and the U.S. scaling back its military presence from sheriff of the world to a previous off-shore balancing role, there is a security vacuum that is easily filled by mercenaries with blatant disregard for human rights. As it happened in the past, mercenaries prosper in preserving chaos and in several instances from Africa to Asia their actions are again going to be functional to ignite conflicts and extend their incomes.

The challenges that are emerging in contemporary armed conflicts from the action of mercenary-related activities include not only the lack of transparency and accountability but also the fact that mercenaries thrive during conflicts and are another hurdle to overcome in the peace process. For example, the involvement of mercenaries on both sides of the ongoing Libyan conflict constrains the country’s return to normalcy. Also in some cases, mercenary activities even led to the intensification and prolonging of conflicts, and subsequently resulted in further human rights abuses. It is not a news story. Machiavelli in The Prince declares how treacherous and ineffective it could be to employ soldiers motivated only by the coin as the mercenaries’ primary role is to avoid putting themselves at risk, and even switching sides if the tide of battle turns or the opponent pays better.

Nonetheless, in contemporary armed conflicts, exists a diverse array of actors who share certain characteristics with mercenaries. However, they don’t neatly fit within the strict confines of the international legal definition of mercenaries. As mentioned earlier, this gray area surrounding mercenaries’ activities poses significant challenges when it comes to addressing the actions of these individuals or groups and reporting human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Furthermore, the increasing use of new technologies and the development of cyber capabilities in the realm of security are only set to complicate matters further.

The historical cycle has returned to the forefront, with professional soldiers once again in the public eye. The utilization of freelancers never truly vanished; it simply shifted into the shadows, where dying for a cause became more respectable than dying for financial gain.

In essence, mercenaries are rewriting the rules of engagement in both war and peacebuilding efforts. The increasing grey area that surrounds the activities of mercenaries has created an urgent need for comprehensive public and private involvement and a revaluation of existing international laws governing the oversight, enforcement, and accountability, especially in the context of armed conflicts.

As security demands escalate, the line between private security and private military services, or even mercenaries, becomes increasingly blurred. On one side of the spectrum, contracting efficient private security providers not only benefits multinational corporations operating in high-risk areas but, more crucially, it should have a positive impact on local stakeholders. On the flip side, the presence of unaccountable private military and mercenary organizations poses a threat to long-awaited peace processes. Many of the allegations that were initially directed at firms like Blackwater and similar entities in Iraq and Afghanistan have now shifted to non-Western actors. These allegations encompass igniting conflict, exacerbating insecurity and instability, promoting corruption and unaccountability, depleting local financial resources, and recruiting individuals who could have served in their respective national armed services. In essence, undermining national sovereignty and sustainable development.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).